Pair Arrested for ‘Stealing’ 67 Fla. Homes

Fraudsters troll obituaries seeking homeowners who died, then lie and forge documents to claim ownership, often to the surprise of the actual heirs.

COOPER CITY, Fla. – The homeowners are dead. But their true heirs have been stiffed out of their rightful inheritance in an elaborate effort to steal entire houses in South Florida, investigators say.

Authorities say they on Monday arrested two Cooper City women on charges of scheme to defraud, filing false liens and grand theft, all felonies.

Investigators waited for the suspects, Samantha Johnson and Sandra Shea, to show up at the county government center in downtown Fort Lauderdale. There, the women had requested an appearance at the county property appraiser’s office to dispute a tax charge. Then the net came down: Both women were handcuffed and led away.

Fraud investigators with the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office pledged this is just the beginning, with more arrests expected. Every day, they hear from more people who tell of strangers trying to claim their family’s home.

Investigators say Johnson and Shea got control of two homes in Cooper City by using forged and falsified documents. They got the homes of dead people, and then gained control of the homes through probate court, investigators say.

In one of the cases, investigators say they persuaded a rightful heir to take a fraction of what the home was really worth, and never paid him anything. In the second case, they convinced a man who had just been released from prison and had the same last name as the homeowner that he was an heir, which he wasn’t, and he took a small cut of the sale, investigators say.

The women profited by $510,000 for the sale of the two homes, investigators said. The name of their criminal defense attorney – or whether they have obtained one at all – was not immediately available Monday.

Mike Fisten, a fraud investigator for Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office, said he identified 67 homes throughout the state that these women unlawfully obtained worth millions of dollars. He said 21 of them are past the statute of limitations to prosecute. The Broward Sheriff’s office was the arresting agency Monday.

Ron Cacciatore, a former Broward sheriff’s captain, now oversees fraud investigations for the property appraiser’s office, and says the problem exists far beyond these two women, saying people are “preying on our minority community and our elderly and our deceased.”

“It’s disturbing,” he said. “We have to stop this.”

But he acknowledges it probably can’t be stopped. So fraud detectives just have to try to put a dent in it. He keeps a map in his office with pictures of more than two dozen houses that the women own.

A growing problem: How it works
Generally, here’s how such thieves carry out heists: People access public records online to identify homes that have unpaid property taxes, in hopes there’s not the rightful owner still living there, or search obituaries for people who have died, investigators say. Then they seek out heirs, often the same types of people.

“They were always elderly and lived out of state,” Fisten said. “They target heirs who don’t have a lot and are vulnerable.” Or they seek out false heirs who will go along with the ruse, he said.

Then, they convince the heirs or fake heirs to sign over the house.

“They’re smart,” Cacciatore said of such scammers. “Can you imagine [someone] stealing your grandmother’s house? … This is out of control.”

Fisten said he has had cases where people were nearly evicted from their own home after people convinced a probate judge that the property was theirs when it wasn’t. In most cases, the theft involves the property of people who have died, and their elderly heirs are less likely to pursue complaints.

There are eight fraud investigators working in the property appraiser’s office on homestead and deed, but it’s not nearly enough, officials say. So Broward’s Property Appraiser Marty Kiar said he’ll ask the state Department of Revenue to approve the funding for two new fraud investigators dedicated solely to working with prosecutors “in building criminal cases against people doing this.”

Then, as part of the funding process, he’ll appear before the County Commission on June 7 for the new positions concentrated on deed fraud.

“This is not welcome here in Broward County,” Kiar said of the focus on property crime. “Cracking down on title fraud has been a big priority of mine.”

Last year, he launched “Owner Alert” to notify residents if the county office gets paperwork changing property ownership. It doesn’t prevent the fraud from happening but alerts rightful owners within 24 hours by email if there’s a mess that needs to be cleaned up before it’s too late.

Kiar said he began pursuing the idea after a Hollywood couple forged documents to claim ownership of $17 million worth of real estate in New York and Florida.

Using a fraudulent deed indicating that the property belonged to New York Mortgage Corp., the couple evicted a resident from their home in Hollywood with help from police in 2015, federal officials said. They also changed the locks on the property.

Facing additional charges
Johnson and Shea were indicted in federal court last year on charges of violating the federal law restricting release of medical information.

Prosecutors allege in court files that Shea was working at Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood as a secretary from 2012 through 2016, where she had access to patients’ personal information including Social Security numbers and dates of death. The indictment alleges they used the information “to obtain leads and contact information” in 22 instances to get title for their companies, Double S1 LLC and 2S Investments LLC.

The women pleaded guilty. And in March, Johnson was sentenced to 30 months in prison, and Shea received two years and a $10,000 fine. They were scheduled to turn themselves in to start their federal prison sentence next week.

Monday’s new criminal charges are in state court, which is a different jurisdiction.

Fisten said the two Cooper City homes – the properties that are the subject of the new criminal charges – are separate addresses from the federal charges. One of the new cases happened in February – just a month before their sentencing. It was after they had already been indicted.

By Lisa J. Huriash | © 2022 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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